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Joseph Wright of Derby

1734 – 1797

A Philosopher Shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby

A Philosopher Shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump   1769

  Mezzotint by Valentine Green after Joseph Wright of Derby.
With both artists’ names in the plate.
Ref: Clayton P2 ii/iv; Bemrose 5
S 488 x 592 mm; P 484 x 587 mm; I 448 x 587 mm
Brilliant proof impresssion of the completed image, prior to title lettering and prior to first publication.

A truly outstanding early proof impression of this magnificent large mezzotint with the scratched inscription, prior to the normal lettering and with the word “excudit” still showing clearly beneath the word “Londinit” (sic).

Rocker work is clearly visible in the inscription space which has not yet been burnished clean.
In this exceptionally early proof, the mezzotint burr is totally fresh and the soft copper plate shows absolutely no signs of wear.

A Philosopher Shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump has long been the most sought after of all of the magnificent mezzotints of Wright of Derby’s works and is by far the hardest to find in a good impression. To quote from the Tate catalogue of this engraving “Fine impressions of the Air Pump have always been expensive and as early as 1777 a proof in Hopper & Davis’s catalogue of stock (no.504) was priced at £1 7s.” (p.235).

Strangely, Clayton suggests that John Boydell “republished the engraving by late June 1769” – a rather odd statement when it is clear that Boydell’s name is found on the scratched letter pre-publication proof state which would have been used for the Society of Artists exhibition from May to June 1769, such as the present example. Boydell was the first publisher of the plate and his publication line is found on the fully lettered first published state of the plate, giving the publication date of June 24th 1769. Both Green and Boydell offered impressions at the same price, all carrying Boydell’s publication line. The edges of the plate were later bevelled and the image consequently reduced in size to 440 x 580 mm. None of the published or subsequent printings can compare with this pre-publication proof impression.

This famous image was described by Ellis Waterhouse as “one of the wholly original masterpieces of British art”………
(Wright of Derby, Tate Gallery, 1990, pp.58-61).

A Philosopher shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump, represents one of the most outstanding displays of chiaroscuro to be found in English art or in mezzotint engraving. It was upon works such as these that Wright’s lasting fame was built; indeed, Valentine Green’s mezzotint engraving of this particular subject is widely considered to be one of the finest achievements of mezzotint engraving on copper ever to have been produced in England.

No impression of this subject was to be found in the collection of the Honourable Christopher Lennox-Boyd as catalogued and displayed by C.G. Boerner in 2002. Clayton records only two impressions in the first state of the plate and only five impressions in this second state.

This superb proof impression is printed on antique laid paper with thread margins beyond the platemark on all sides. Mild foxing visible verso only. One repair in lower left quadrant – a conservation report is provided giving all details. In general this sheet is in unusually good condition for an early proof mezzotint of this era.

Inscribed in ink verso at lower left corner “No 21” and inscribed in pencil nearby “ No.33.” (this could possibly be “2.gns.”).